It’s no secret that charities have gained a bad reputation in the wake of the countless scandals that fill newspapers and dominate radio headlines; household names have been dragged through the mud and doubt sewn into the minds of donors. Despite these instances of appalling behavior, though, we should treat this as an opportunity to reconsider our attitude towards charity in order to make our ongoing support as meaningful and worthwhile as it can possibly be. In 2016, The Guardian published an article on how trust in charities has been declining slowly but surely, with 33% of people blaming media coverage of recent scandals as the reason for this apparent trend. Figures like these are likely to be even more stark a year on will all of the recent, high-profile scandals that have been rigorously covered by news outlets, Alice Ross of the Financial Times warning that donors, particularly big ones, will be much more wary of donating in future.
Over time, there have been countless examples of misconduct in the charity sector, though these last few years seem to be the worst yet. Oxfam, for example, has been embroiled in a sex scandal that emerged from 2011 which took place in Haiti, where aid workers allegedly used sex workers (some potentially underage) while working on the ground. Save The Children, the international NGO promoting children’s rights, has also been in the media firing line after it was revealed that its chief executive – as well as the husband of the murdered MP Joe Cox – harassed his female employees whose concerns were not addressed with the appropriate scrutiny and respect. In 2016, The Wounded Warrior Project, a foundation that aims to help ex-combatants recover after service was accused of “spending lavishly on itself”, directing funds towards luxuries like expensive hotel rooms and business class flights rather than its service users.
Scandals such as these happen everywhere and in almost any organization, though while there may be a measure of outrage following exposed tax evasion or fraud, such as that of Starbucks for instance, it is not nearly as long-lasting or damaging as the fallout from a charity scandal. In these cases, we are far less forgiving, which may say something about how we imagine a charity to be. In the minds of many, charities are purely do-gooding institutions that not only make the world a better place but also make us feel better about ourselves. When charities we support are involved in questionable or downright immoral behavior, we feel betrayed and experience a loss of the trust we put in them when we decided to hand over our credit cards details. To add insult to injury, many find it embarrassing when they have publicly donated to a ‘good’ cause only to be told that their contribution went to nothing or, worse still, that it funded bad behavior at the expense of people in need.
Perhaps, then, the reason why charity scandals are so abhorrent in particular is because of the way in which we think about these organizations and about ourselves when we give. Giving to charity is an easy way of assuaging a guilty conscience, an example being the thousands of people who donate to homelessness charities after passing a rough sleeper. The psychology of charity is extremely complex, research featured in the New York Times indicating that there is not one motivating factor but many when we donate, ranging from pure altruism (if that exists) to self-interest. If there’s one thing we might salvage from these charity scandals it is that they have forced us to consider why and how we give as well as who to and how our money is being used. on how giving to charity has a similar effect in the brain to taking addictive drugs such as cocaine, neatly putting it “Charity can get you high”. If anything, it is charity scandals that threaten to kill our buzz. writes for the Guardian
One way of thinking about positive charitable giving might be to think if it as a relationship between two people. If one was experiencing difficult times, the other – if they are a true friend – should try to support them and to enable them to overcome or adequately cope with the hardship while allowing them to retain a degree of independence and dignity. Clearly, this is preferable to a relationship of unequals where one party is dependent on the other, who is only committed to giving just enough, the bare minimum. In Mighty Be Our Powers, the autobiography of the leader of the Liberian women’s movement for peace, Leymah Gbowee has some interesting things to say about giving aid, arguing that organizations must work with the people affected or the service users as, quite obviously, they know that will work or what won’t and where funds really need to be channeled. In her words:
“Most of the institutions that come in to offer help after disaster don’t have the resources to provide concrete help like that. Donor communities invest billions funding peace talks and disarmament. Then they stop. The most important postwar help is missing…You’d think the international community would be sensible enough to know they should work to change this. But they aren’t.”
As we see so often, charitable causes are reduced to hashtags and one-off donations during its five minutes of fame. In 2012, for example, my Facebook feed was full of support for victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army and cries for Joseph Kony to be brought to justice for his atrocious crimes. Tellingly, the hunt only ended last year, 5 years after the media storm took off, though you’d hardly know as the cause had long ceased to be ‘fashionable’, a scandal in itself.
Charity scandals, while not all alike, shatter the illusion that these organizations can do no wrong and provide opportunities to reconsider what they need to be about. What is becoming increasingly clear is that these organizations must work with the affected people to be as meaningful as possible and fully realize their potential for doing good. Service users must be able to make informed choices about the help or support they receive and be able to meaningfully contribute to the decision-making process. It is these people who best know the scale of the issue, how outside help fits in and how they might best be supported . Now, in many organization mission statements is a declaration of the intention to work alongside those affected, such as that of the Refugee Council, for example, who claim that “We[they] work with refugees and people seeking asylum in the UK…We offer a helping hand to support and empower them to rebuild their lives”, the key words being “support” and “empower”.
Giving to charity can be a wonderfully positive and fulfilling enterprise though, like everything else, should be undergone with serious thought and reflection. There are many organizations doing excellent work which we should be funding to further empower their continuation. Really, then, we should do proper research and take time to reflect before we thoughtlessly donate and ask ourselves the difficult questions before we hit the ‘pay’ button and then share our ‘generosity’ on our social media feeds.